An Interview with Joseph Parisi
Joseph Parisi ’s a man of great vigor and poetic fortitude. His manner is incisive and grounded, though it is readily perceivable just how much he champions the poetic imagination. I first encountered Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry from 1983 to 2003, when he gave a talk at the bookstore where I worked in September of 2005. The subject of his talk was his newly published anthology, 100 Essential Modern Poems.
I found his exuberance and almost vigilant opposition to intellectual dishonesty quite arresting, not to mention his great knowledge informed by a passion for the aesthetic power of words. What I found most engaging about the talk, however, was his accessibility. There was no snobbish posturing to be found anywhere around him. I thought of this kind of accessibility as peculiar for a man of his distinction, but I seized the opportunity to converse with him briefly after the question and answer session following his talk. He was forthcoming, amicable, and pleasantly engaged. I am happy to have this opportunity to finally continue our conversation.
Your most recent book is titled 100 Essential Modern Poems. Why are the hundred poems in this anthology essential?
Well, first of all, I should say that they are not THE one hundred essential modern poems. These poems had something to say, rather than just being experiments in style and technique. They address certain perennial issues such as life, death, love, heartbreak, war, and peace, but from a distinctly modern point of view.
I do not necessarily define these poems as modern in the Modernist sense, which is to say that period of High Modernism in the 1920’s which included people like Stevens, Marianne Moore, etc. The modern innovation shook up the stagnant period of poetry preceding their own, which can be termed genteel poetry. The modern world brought fundamental changes in how people lived. The biggest event that defined the modern era was, of course, World War I. This served to sweep into the ashcan pieties about what made the world go around. This new notion of personal isolation brought about from this cataclysmic event inspired a poetry centered around being on one’s own. Also, there was a focus on concrete reality, what things really are, becoming the prevailing interest carried to the fore by these poets. The central idea was not for poetry to take one to a higher realm, but rather to bring poetry back down to earth.
In Axel’s Castle, Edmund Wilson asserts that Modernism was borne of the French Symbolist movement. Do you find that to be a credible idea?
That’s pretty well true, but only partly so. It certainly had a big effect on Eliot. It had a big effect on Yeats as well. You can see these poets wondering about what should come next. Now, you have to admit the Symbolists are really quite odd. But their poems had a kind of magic. Its attractiveness to Yeats is quite obvious, since he always had an interest in the esoteric and the occult, weird lore of all kinds, and arcane knowledge in a very serious way, because he was trying to create a kind of new mythology. The Symbolists are trying to subvert the rational quality by trying to present an odd juxtaposition of images all of which have great importance and are not immediately rational or decipherable in the usual ways. Their words are suggestive, dark, and, in some ways, incomprehensible. Anyone who claims to really understand Mallarme hasn’t really read him.
Mallarme, when asked by a friend why he smoked so many cigarettes, replied: “I smoke so that I may blow smoke between myself and the world." What do you think of that sentiment?
This figure of the poet is still very attractive to outsiders. This blowing of smoke is intended to willfully irritate you and to create a miasma and murkiness. So many of these poets were so revolted by the bourgeois society from which they came and its stultifying behaviors and conventional thinking. Look at the heaviness of the clothes, the paintings. It’s enough to make you choke. These poets felt they needed to get out of it somehow, and if you couldn’t get out of it, you mocked it however you could. This was a way of getting even, especially if your genius wasn’t appreciated.
What do you think of the poetry of T.S. Eliot?
The early poems are quite depressing. He creates a picture of real alienation and uncertainty. He’s not a very appealing figure. In these early poems he creates anti-heroes: pictures of a modern culture which is deracinated, sterile, boring, and neurotically perceived.
What makes the poetry of Wallace Stevens modern?
He posited the notion that it should be the function of the poet to create a new fiction, a supreme fiction, which would center on the world here and now, as it is. You don’t need to any longer look to the old notions which have now been exploded.
What do you think of Stevens’ reflection from the Necessary Angel: “Philosophers attempt to prove that they exist; poets merely enjoy existence.”
Well, that’s one of those pseudo-profound statements that Wally Stevens was good at. But it’s true, of course. The problem, I suppose, is one could go into an art gallery and have an immediate reaction. Even if you don’t understand it, you can have visceral reaction. It is difficult to create that effect with words. With words, there’s always the interpretive problem. Stevens was always trying to subvert that problem. He thought one must play with the language so that it doesn’t immediately give up its meaning. A poet must be obliquely revelatory. The words can’t tell you everything, because it has to reveal at another level, instead of the expected one.
W.H. Auden is a modern poet who often wrote in a more conventional metrical and structural style than many of his Modernist forebears. What makes Auden modern? Theme? Tone?
He had the modern mentality. He made quite an impression because he talked about ordinary things in ordinary language. He seemed to be aware of things like cars and planes and light bulbs. He was very well aware of history and psychology, and he admits them into his poetry. He opens up the subject matter of poetry. His humor comes from his mixture of high and low. He’ll sometimes speak in high philosophical language, and then drop in something from the daily newspaper. The poems are carefully constructed and formal. I think what’s interesting is that he had good common sense. It harkens back to the eighteenth century when people could go to a poet and ask: What is it all about? Also, Auden’s poetry gives a distinct sense that someone is truly talking to you, not talking down to you from above.
If we may cross the pond, I’d like to return to American poetry. You included a section of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in your book. What do you think of Allen Ginsberg and 1950s America?
First of all, Allen’s real tutor was William Burroughs. Burroughs was reading a lot of forbidden French literature at the time when he met Ginsberg. He would say: Allen you’re so square, get hip. The notion of the 1950s that life could be richer and better had to be opened up. This rebellion is always appealing to smart adolescence and young people who, like all oppressed groups, are under the thumb of old people who don’t know a thing. Also, there were all of these people who wanted to tell you there’s good and bad, these rules and regulations. They were all full of it. Everything that exists, in a naïve way, is true. And if it exists and is natural, how can it not be true? Instead of pretending that everything doesn’t exist, embrace it. America is the great chance, the great new beginning. This is the place where we can have all of the diversity, multiplicity, originality. It was a question of life and death in the 1950s. This is not just adolescence. This is the atomic age. People are really scared at this time because of all of the paranoia and censorship bred by Cold War politics. So many great books were not even legally allowed in the country. The question was: who’s in charge? Who are these authorities to be authorities? These are the same people who would eventually throw American youth into the quagmire that was Vietnam. This is a replay of what happened at the beginning of the Modernist movement.
Back then the question was the same: who are these people in the churches and government? On what basis do they make these statements? What these authority figures were saying was not tenable for anyone with a brain. What we see in the 1950s is a return to the same type of questioning going on thirty years before. The formal approach in the '50s was different, of course. A lot of it was for shock value, but you’ve got to do that for the squares, you know?
Do you believe Ginsberg sought to carry the mantle of Whitman into the twentieth century?
The notion of Whitman being unrecognized, even at that time, as the American genius he was, was still very real. His poetry was sheer exuberance, sheer American enthusiasm. You can see how in the '50s, with that kind of restrictive, post-war, conformist, corporate, suburban, commercial, capitalist, controlling, square, incredibly boring culture, [Whitman’s] poetry would be very appealing (to Ginsberg).
Jumping to the present, Billy Collins is the most widely read American poet writing today. What about his poetry engenders his wide public appeal?
Well, he seems to have tapped into a residual perennial substratum of human personality and interest that has always been there in poetry, which, in his case, is presented in a fashion which is deceptively straight-forward. He’s a great presenter of his own work, and the more deadpan he is, the funnier it is. In his really good stuff there’s always a very delicate balance between the dark and the light that starts off funny, then gradually turns into something deeper, more complicated. Rhetorically, he’s very skilled at leading you in slowly, before veering off into what we can call, well, poetics which take on deeper resonance as he goes along. One of the motifs of Collins’s work is melancholy. For all of the humor, his project is sad in that it faces up to the ultimate disappointment of life: its shortness. The sweetness of it makes its shortness all the more bitter. A strong idea in his poetry is that of being content to enjoy the present. Life is a series of diminishments. To forget something is to lose something. To lose something is to become less. For all of the lightness of touch and humor, Collins is very poignant. There is a leafy forgetfulness and loss and oblivion.
You know Billy Collins personally. What are his feelings about his immense success to date?
I think he enjoys it. I’ve never really talked to him about it in that way, though. He worked in total obscurity for twenty or twenty-five years. I don’t think any of his students or colleagues even knew he wrote poems all that time. He was an overnight success after a couple decades. And he should enjoy it all the more because, unlike certain people we shan’t name, he didn’t grasp, he didn’t play the game, he didn’t attend all the parties, and he was even living in New York.
In closing, do you think there is a place for poetry in the American culture we know now?
The question presumes a kind of necessity. In the marketplace of ideas, I would say no. The question really is: what is its purpose? Well, there isn’t any. It’s like asking what’s the purpose of Mozart? If one is looking for a utilitarian use for such things, you probably won’t find one. In a society like ours, the elective activities available are quite vast. The competition is fierce. Unless the poets themselves become educators, there will never be a larger audience for poetry. Poetry requires a sophisticated level of learning. To get the nuances of poetry requires not only a high level of language learning, but also cultural learning. A few readers of my new book I spoke with recently seemed surprised that they could like poetry. When I was editor of Poetry, I wanted my readers to feel welcome as non-specialists. I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. If you give people something of value, something that respects their intelligence, they will respond.